Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

The Obama Effect?

President_Barack_ObamaIn The American Interest this week, sociologist Peter Berger has a provocative essay on the controversy over the City of Houston’s demand for sermons several pastors have delivered on the topics of homosexuality and gender identity. Berger says the roots of the controversy lie in the Obama Administration’s disregard for religion. He makes a powerful point, but I wonder whether he overstates things.

The City of Houston’s demand came in the form of subpoenas in a lawsuit over a petition to repeal a city anti-discrimination ordinance. As I explained in an earlier post, the city’s demand was outrageous, even given the freewheeling standards of American litigation, and the city has in fact narrowed its request. Some smart observers think this “narrowing” is just a publicity stunt. In my opinion, the new subpoenas, which ask only for communications that relate to the petition and ordinance themselves, stand a better chance of surviving. We’ll see how the court rules.

But leave aside that narrow, procedural matter for now. Here’s a more important question. Why did the city issue the offensive subpoenas in the first place? America has a long tradition of respecting religion, and the idea that government would demand to know what pastors were saying in their own churches should have set off all kinds of alarms. We don’t do that sort of thing in our country.

Berger says the episode reflects America’s decreasing regard for religion and religious believers. And he lays the blame largely at the door of the Obama Administration:

This episode in the heart of the Bible Belt can be placed, first, in the national context of the Obama presidency, and then in a broad international context and its odd linkage of homosexuality and religious freedom. I’m not sure whether President Obama still has a “bully pulpit”; at this moment even close political allies of his don’t want to listen to his sermons, if they don’t flee from the congregation altogether. All the same, every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.

Now, there’s much in what Berger says. The Obama Administration has shown little enthusiasm for religious freedom. True, the Administration  intervened recently to protect a prison inmate’s right to wear a 1/4-inch beard for religious reasons. But in the two major religious freedom cases of its tenure, Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration created obstacles for religious freedom in needlessly inflammatory ways. It insisted on the Contraception Mandate, even though it knew the mandate would gravely trouble some Christians and even though alternatives existed that could have given the Administration most of what it wanted. It accepted compromise only grudgingly and litigated the case to the bitter end. And in Hosanna-Tabor, the Administration argued that the Religion Clauses had nothing at all to do with a church’s decision to select its own minister–a position a unanimous Supreme Court rejected as “remarkable.”

Still, when it comes to a declining respect for religion in America, I’m not sure the Administration is a cause so much as an effect. Perhaps its actions reflect a broader cultural shift to secularism. Most likely, there is mutual reinforcement. A growing cultural secularism, embodied, for political purposes, in the Democratic Party, contributed to the President’s election; and the President’s election in turn has contributed to a growing secularism. This growing secularism leads many people to view religion–traditional religion, anyway–with antipathy. And that antipathy leads to things like the Houston subpoenas. It’s a vicious circle–or virtuous one, I suppose, depending on your view of things.

Also, it’s not clear things are so bad for traditional religion now, or that they were so good before. As Yuval Levin wrote recently in First Things, religious conservatives seem to have overestimated their cultural ascendancy during the Bush Administration–so did their opponents, as I recall; remember those cartoon maps of “Jesus Land”? –and may underestimate their influence today. According to a recent Pew survey, almost 50% of Americans think churches and houses of worship should express their views on political and social issues, an increase of six percent since 2010. Three-quarters of the public think religion’s influence in our national life is declining–and most of those people think it’s a bad thing. If anything, the Obama Administration seems to be contributing to a pro-religion backlash.

Well, these are complicated issues. Berger’s essay is very worthwhile. You can read the whole thing here.

Panel at AAR Meeting Next Month

The Religion and American Law Discussion Group will host a panel at the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego (November 22-25). Topics will include “Religion and American Law, Applied” and “The Meaning and Ramifications of Greece v. Galloway.” Speakers include Dusty Hoesly (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Barber (UC-Santa Barbara), Michael Graziano (Florida State), Charles McCrary (Florida State), Alan Brownstein (UC-Davis), Steve Smith (San Diego), and Steven Green (Willamette). Details about the conference are here.

Podcast on Holt v. Hobbs

Mark and I have recorded another in our podcast series, this time on the “prison beard case,” Holt v. Hobbs, argued this week at the Supreme Court. We discuss the claim and the oral argument, and make some predictions. To get our other podcasts, click here.

The Armenian Church in Myanmar: A Follow-Up

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Photo from the BBC

A follow-up to last month’s post on the Armenian Orthodox church in Myanmar: This summer, the BBC did a lovely story about a 150-year old Armenian parish church in the city of Yangon, St. John the Baptist (above). Hardly any parishioners remained, the BBC said, maybe 10 people on a good Sunday. Most of the congregation were not Armenians, either, the Armenians having left Myanmar, with the British, decades before.

A small group of holdouts had continued to maintain the church, however, led by a priest, Father John Felix. Father John was not Armenian Orthodox, the story indicated, but Anglican. Nonetheless, the Armenian Church had, in an ecumenical gesture, invited him to use St. John the Baptist for the small number of faithful who remained, even though he had a very limited knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy. (Most of the parishioners had a very limited knowledge, too). Apparently he was starting to attract a following from among Christian believers of many communions.

The BBC got its information straight from Father John. It turns out, however, that he’s not really “Father” John at all. The Anglican archbishop says that John Felix was never ordained a priest, only a deacon, and that, for unspecified reasons, the Anglican Church no longer allows him to conduct religious services. How he ensconced himself at St. John the Baptist is a mystery. He apparently inserted himself a few years ago, after the last “full” member of the congregation passed away. The Armenian Church hierarchy seems not to have known about it. To be fair, they have many more pressing issues with which to contend.

This summer’s story drew a lot of attention. As I say, once the Anglicans found out about John Felix, they spread the word he wasn’t one of theirs. The story got noticed in Armenia as well. Last week, the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Armenian Church, Karekin II, visited Yangon to reconsecrate the altar and conduct a proper liturgy; a large crowd attended. The Catholicos also announced that henceforth an Orthodox priest from Calcutta would fly in on weekends to conduct liturgies at the church. As for John Felix, he’s indicated he intends to remain at the church and has refused to turn over the keys. The BBC says legal action seems likely.

The BBC has posted a video interview with John Felix. He seems like a nice enough man, and gamely tries to chant the Kyrie Eleison (in Armenian, Der Voghormia) to show his bona fides. But, if the BBC is to be believed, he’s been deceiving everyone for years. He has actually purported to conduct weddings and baptisms for unsuspecting parishioners. Is he well-meaning but misguided, or an out-and-out scoundrel? It’s impossible to tell. What a very strange story.

Video: Movsesian Lecture on Mideast Christians at Lanier Theological Library

For those who might be interested, the Lanier Theological Library has made available a video of my lecture last month, “Religious Freedom for Mideast Christians: Yesterday and Today.” In the lecture, I discuss the history of the Mideast’s Christian communities, their persecution today, and what Americans can do about it.

The video is below. Thanks again to Mark Lanier and everyone at the library for hosting me!

Dim Drums Throbbing, In the Hills Half Heard

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Today is the 443rd anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto

On Christians and the Open Letter to the Islamic State

Recently, a group of more than 120 Islamic law scholars, many of them from very prominent institutions in the Sunni world like Cairo’s Al Azhar University, signed an Open Letter to the leader of the Islamic State (aka IS, or ISIL, or ISIS), Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi). The letter sharply criticizes IS, arguing that most of its actions violate Islamic law. Among other things, the letter rejects IS’s declaration of a caliphate; its conception of jihad; its persecution of non-Muslims, including Christians and Yazidis; its atrocities against women and children; its killing of journalists and aid workers; and its destruction of the shrines of the prophets.

The Open Letter is a welcome development and its authors and signatories deserve credit. Western observers often criticize Muslim leaders for their failure to speak out against Islamist groups like IS, since the silence of Muslim leaders can be taken as assent. The Open Letter makes clear that IS does not represent the totality of Islam and that its Salafist interpretations are not the last word in fiqh. It’s valuable to have a critique of IS from within the Islamic law tradition itself.

And yet, if one reads the Open Letter closely, one sees that its conclusions are not all that Western observers might hope. At the First Things site, Ayman Ibrahim explores some of the letter’s ambiguities. For example, the scholars criticize IS’s attempt to reestablish the caliphate, not because the idea itself is outmoded, but because IS is too small to assert worldwide Muslim rule. “There is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah,” the letter concedes. But a small group like IS cannot declare a caliphate all on its own. “In truth, the caliphate must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organizations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe.”

Well, what if IS ultimately does ultimately obtain support for its caliphate? Given the group’s meteoric success so far, perhaps IS feels optimistic and would like to give it a try. Would consensus make IS’s caliphate legitimate? And does the letter really mean to suggest that Muslims across the globe have a religious obligation to seek the restoration of some sort of caliphate? That’s certainly how it sounds. How about Muslims in the West?

Or take the treatment of Christians, a matter Ibrahim does not discuss. As most people know by now, IS has murdered or expelled Iraqi and Syrian Christians who refuse to agree to the terms of the dhimma, the classical Islamic law “agreement” in which Christians accept subordinate status and pay a poll tax called the jizya. The Open Letter sharply criticizes IS for these actions. “These Christians are not combatants against Islam or transgressors against it,” the letter protests, but “friends, neighbors and co-citizens. “

This defense of Christians from leading Muslim scholars is very helpful. But then the letter makes clear the Islamic law basis for the scholars’ critique: “From the legal perspective of Shari’ah,” it says, the Christians of Iraq and Syria “all fall under ancient agreements that are around 1400 years old, and the rulings of jihad do not apply to them.” As non-combatants, these Christians are subject to a smaller jizya than IS has assessed . This smaller jizya is a substitute for the zakat Muslims pay and is to be distributed among the whole population, including Christians on occasion, as a form of charity.

In other words, the scholars’ objection is not that IS has subjected Iraqi and Syrian Christians to the dhimma and imposed on them the jizya. Rather, the objection is that these Christians are already subject to the dhimma and that IS has no authority to impose new terms, and that IS is collecting the wrong form of jizya. To put it mildly, this reasoning is not likely to reassure Christians and encourage them to return to their homes — assuming those homes still exist.

Some readers will think I am caviling. But I really don’t think so. In law, reasons matter. As I say, the Open Letter is a welcome contribution to the debate over IS and the signers, some of whom have no doubt taken personal risk, deserve credit. But the reasoning of the letter — well, let’s just say it raises some serious questions.

Video of Panel Presentation on Religious Liberty

The Lanier Theological Library in Houston has posted a video of a panel on religious liberty that took place at the library earlier this month. Among other subjects, the panel addressed the rise of contemporary Islamism, the treatment of Christians in the Mideast, the prevalence of Islamic-law arbitration in Europe and the US, and the legality of American drone strikes on American citizens affiliated with Islamist groups. I participated in the panel, along with Mark Lanier (Founder, Lanier Theological Library), Dean Michael Simons (St. John’s), Professor James Hoffmeier (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Fr. Mario Arroyo (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston). Take a look.

On Old Age (and Ezekiel Emanuel)

In a much-discussed Atlantic essay, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel — physician, public commentator, and prominent supporter of the Affordable Care Act — argues that we’d all be better off if we died at 75. That way, we would escape the debility and indignity that accompany old age and avoid being burdens to our children and other loved ones. And we would have the solace of not outliving our productivity. After all, he writes, “by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Emanuel has no plan to commit suicide if he reaches 75, he says. But he plans to reject all medical treatments, even routine ones, that go beyond the palliative.

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He Knew

Emanuel rightly mocks “American immortals” who seem to believe they should (and maybe will!) live forever. And, in a culture like ours, which values youth and professional achievement virtually above everything else, his argument has a kind of plausibility. I’ve had 25 year-old students tell me they already feel over the hill. Why linger on into your eighties or nineties, when your best days and accomplishments are far behind you? Plus, society would save lots of money if people stopped seeking medical care at 75.

Nonetheless, there’s a serious flaw in Emanuel’s thinking. Strength, health, creativity — these are good things, but they are not the only things that give life meaning. From a Christian perspective, for example, the point of life is to express gratitude to and love for the Lord, and this we can do at any age. In the fullness of time, God will call each of us; until then, we have to try our best. There’s no point rushing Him.

Not everyone believes this, of course. But one needn’t be a Christian, or a religious believer of any kind, to appreciate that old age has some things to offer. “For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life,” said the pagan Cicero (above). And one needn’t be a religious believer to see that the elderly may still have much to contribute to us, even if they are weak, sick, and no longer able to write symphonies.

In a lovely response to Emanuel, my friend, John McGinnis, explains this, offering his own parents as an example. John does a much better job than I could, so I’ll just quote him:

But youth and good health do not measure humanity. Millions in diminished health enjoy life, being with their relatives, laughing at old movies, even just sitting in the breeze and sunshine. And their relatives and friends enjoy being with them. Indeed, they may find in the elderly’s struggle with aging an inspiration and a reaffirmation of life. In caring for the frail, weak and sometimes woebegone, they may also expand their own sympathies and express some small measure of gratitude for the debt of a good upbringing that can never be fully repaid.

That is certainly my experience watching my parents age well past 75. I have never admired my father more than when at the cusp of ninety he faces down his own infirmities and cares for my mother who has Parkinson’s disease. And although much is taken from my mother, much abides—her concern for others, her delight in reading new novels and rereading old ones. Emanuel argues that in seeing the decline of those we love, we may forget our happy memories of them in their years of vigor and achievement. But those memories do not need to summoned at particular times, because they infuse my being. In any event, the most valuable memories of all are not defined by physical wellbeing but by spirit and character. For so many people beyond 75 the forging of character continues and the power of their spirit at their end will instruct us by example at our own.

For one important thing, though, Emanuel is to be commended. Most of us do our best to ignore our mortality and the questions it raises about how we’re living our lives. As Pascal observed long ago, people will do pretty much anything to distract themselves and avoid thinking about it. That’s not wise; even a long life goes by so very fast. Every writer knows the benefits of deadlines: they force you to concentrate and get serious. Well, Emanuel says, he’s given himself a deadline.

One More Word on Ted Cruz and Christians

Senator Ted Cruz responded yesterday to writers who criticized his needlessly provocative remarks at the recent In Defense of Christians Summit earlier this month. He suggested that his critics didn’t care about Christians — their real target was Israel. His evidence? None of his critics had ever expressed concern for Mideast Christians before:

Then, among one particular community, which is sort of the elite, intellectual Washington, D.C., crowd, there has been considerable criticism… A number of the critics, a number of the folks in the media have suggested, for example, that my saying what I did distracted from the plight of persecuted Christians.

What I find interesting is almost to a person, the people writing those columns have never or virtually never spoken of persecuted Christians in any other context. I have spoken literally hundreds of times all over the country. This is a passion. I’ve been on the Senate floor, and I intend to keep highlighting this persecution. I will say it does seem interesting that the only time at least some of these writers seem to care about persecuted Christians is when it furthers an anti-Israel narrative for them. That starts to suggest that maybe their motivation is not exactly what they’re saying.

For a man who claims a passion for the plight of Mideast Christians, he doesn’t seem to have followed public discussion of the subject. The writers to whom he alludes — Michael Dougherty, Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, Mollie Hemingway, Matt Lewis, and, I guess, me (my criticism of him at the First Things site was the most widely-read and commented-upon post at the site last week) — have written plenty on the topic. First Things’s Matt Schmitz kindly posted a list of my own posts — 37 of them.

Within a few hours, Senator Cruz had apologized:

It was a mistake to suggest that critics of my remarks at IDC had not spoken out previously concerning the persecution of Christians; many of them have done so, often quite eloquently. It was not my intent to impugn anyone’s integrity, and I apologize to any columnists who took offense. The systematic murder of Christians in the Middle East is a horrible atrocity, and all of us should be united against it. Likewise we should speak with one voice against the persecution of Jews, usually being carried out by the very same jihadist radicals.

OK, I accept — although he still hasn’t apologized for lumping me in with the elite, intellectual, Beltway crowd. But it’s an ugly thing to insinuate bigotry in people who disagree with you, and, on this issue at least, Senator Cruz seems to make a habit of it. Nothing good can come from this, not for Mideast Christians, not for Israel, and not for Senator Cruz. I have an proposal. His critics will stop talking about Senator Cruz if he does. Is it a deal?